US anti-racism protestors are calling for a wholesale reevaluation of American history - it includes some of America’s most iconic figures.
As the US continues to grapple with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, it is also managing the questions that periodically sweep the nation still coming to terms with centuries of insidious and institutional racism.
Now, anti-racism protests have the former US President Abraham Lincoln in their crosshairs. At first, this may seem like an odd choice. Lincoln, after all, is widely credited with ending slavery.
A statue, in particular, is drawing attention to Lincoln’s record on racism. Named as the ‘The Emancipation Memorial’, it depicts President Lincoln standing tall freeing an African-American slave who is on one knee, fist clenched and almost naked standing by the president’s feet.
The monument was designed to be a celebration of the emancipation of black slaves and the end of slavery. A petition, however, is now calling the statue to be removed.
“The goal is not to destroy this piece but to replace it with something that truly represents its original intent,” said Tory Bullock the man behind the petition.
“It's supposed to represent freedom but instead represents us still beneath someone else. I would always ask myself 'If he's free why is he still on his knees?'" added Bullock.
Some activists are even calling for it to be pulled down should authorities not listen to the views of the African-American community.
This is a statue of Abraham Lincoln, with a Black man at his feet, in Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill. Is this statue offensive to you or not? pic.twitter.com/H377QcUbLh— Political Poet (@mdnij34) June 25, 2020
It has already begun, however. Statues like that of Christoper Columbus, who discovered the Americas for Europe, centuries after it had been previously discovered and settled by Native Americans, have been decapitated.
Following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer who choked him to death, there have been growing calls for the country to review its history and begin the long path towards making amends, including taking down shrines of national figures who upheld and supported racism.
‘Mythology of the Great Emancipator’
If Lincoln’s statue were to be removed, it would be one of the most significant heads to roll in the ongoing national debate of institutional racism in America.
Questions of whether Lincoln was a committed abolitionist or a racist are not new, however.
In 1968, the African-American Magazine Ebony asked the question, “Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?”
The article sought to dismantle the “mythology of the Great Emancipator” going on to say that Lincoln “shared the racial prejudices of most of his white contemporaries.” The article concluded that “no other American story is so false” as the one depicting Lincoln as the embodiment of enlightened white moral leadership.
Pres Trump just said many of the people trying to pull down statues don't know what the statues mean and who the statues commemorate.— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) June 24, 2020
Note: Protesters say they understand who the statues commemorate and that images of those people--many who owed enslaved people--should be gone.
It’s not hard to find some of Lincoln’s views on the people he would later purportedly free.
When he was asked during an electoral campaign whether he was advocating for “negro equality,” Lincoln put the matter to rest.
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,” said Lincoln to applause.
He added, finally, “I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”
In comparison, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who was fighting a war against Lincoln’s presidency, said in defence of slavery, "Our new government is founded upon ... the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition."
Malcolm X, the famous African-American vernacular intellectual, said that Lincoln “probably did more to trick Negroes than any other man in history...he wasn't interested in freeing the slaves. He was interested in saving the Union.”
When Lincoln issued The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it only applied to slaves who were in the states that had seceded from the United States. Slaves held within the Union held territory were exempt.
It has been suggested, therefore, that Lincoln’s move to free slaves was motivated by a desire to encourage slaves in secessionist states to abandon their owners, thereby weakening the slave dependent economies.
More than 155 years after the end of the US Civil War, the legacy of white supremacy and who America’s founding fathers are, and their views on black Americans, is approaching a reckoning.
Lincoln won the US civil war and saved the Union but in the textbooks, the great emancipator may find his statues consigned to museums alongside other confederate racists.